Trump, the GOP and liberal complacencyPosted: May 6, 2016
There is a storyline right now about how slim Donald Trump’s chances are in the general election, and how the GOP may soon have to perform another famed “autopsy.” Much of it is based on sound analyses of the political environment by writers I respect. In some circles you hear that Hillary Clinton must be absolutely overjoyed at having Donald Trump as her competition. And the Republican Party is having a panic attack as it faces the possibility of fracturing from within, as an epic Clinton victory would have significant down-ballot implications on the Senate, House, and state governments. Or so, that’s the way the story goes.
But I am not so sure.
PredictWise shows a 70% chance of a Clinton victory: this is not large by any means. General election polls show an average 6-7 percentage point lead for Clinton: but this can and will dissipate to some degree as Trump turns his attention to the general election battle.
Recall that prior to the first presidential debate between Obama and Romney in 2012, 538 estimated Obama’s chances of winning on October 3 were 86.1%. Following the debate, it fell to 61.1% on October 12, in the span of less than 10 days, a dramatic turn of events. Yes, things reverted after better subsequent debate performances, and Obama managed to resurrect most of his 2008 coalition amidst an expanding economy, but for a period of time, you remembered that there was no guarantee of an expected outcome. Likelihood of events is not the same as certainty of events. Crucially, in a year where conventional wisdom has been upended time and time again, a humbled observer would think twice about confusing the two.
A lot can change in the world between now and November, and we have seen these things in the past. Jimmy Carter had at one point a commanding lead over Ronald Reagan, but the world refused to stay static. The Iran Hostage Crisis shook confidence in Carter as an energy crisis and recession were unfolding. Right or wrong, the blame often goes to the incumbent party, and suddenly voters who had thought Ronald Reagan too conservative were willing to give those ideas a shot after all.
A strange assumption has then taken hold: that the world will continue to look the same in 6 months. In some ways, this is the best single prediction one could give and most likely outcome, given everything we know about the political landscape and the current economic environment. I am not arguing otherwise. But predictions are validated in large samples: based on data today, if we could run the Clinton-Trump race 100 times, we would expect Clinton to win about 70% of the time. Instead, we observe and care about a finite sample of exactly one in November. We have our best guess today, but this is because we cannot predict what strange events will happen in the intermediate period, or the timing of the next recession, or the next ISIS attack. But something will happen, and the calculus of the election could be significantly changed (or not).
In many liberals, there is a smugness about the demographic changes in the country, and how these changes will automatically guide them to victory for the foreseeable future, as it did in 2008 and 2012. In this complacency is quite a lot of missing data points: despite winning the White House since 2008, progressive causes have been stymied since 2010. Republicans have commanded the House of Representatives since then and they are now firmly in control of the Senate. Republicans have taken state legislatures and governorships (31 to Democrats’ 18), and they enacted “severely” conservative policies in the process. In particular, when the federal government is divided, all of the meaningful change essentially occurs at the state and local level. And the GOP, for all the talk of its death, has cleaned up and enacted their preferred policies.
David Frum, following the passage of Obamacare in March 2010, said:
Conservatives may cheer themselves that they’ll compensate for today’s expected vote with a big win in the November 2010 elections. But [. . .] So what? Legislative majorities come and go. This healthcare bill is forever. A win in November is very poor compensation for this debacle now.
It seems Democrats have forgotten that policy happens at all levels of government. Yet their imagination, by and large, is captured entirely by the White House in election years. It involves the big picture ideas along with great television and significant coverage in all forms of media. No need to get involved with the murky and mundane details of governance at the local or state level. And I am as guilty of this as anyone: how many times have I tried to go to city council meetings (zero)? How many times have I paid close attention to state legislatures when there wasn’t a bathroom bill making national headlines (close to zero)?
Of course, this is broad-brushing of others on my part, and there are many passionate people working at all levels to fight for a progressive agenda. But their numbers pale in comparison on election day to the opposing side.
So the same people who seem unaware of the devastating losses at the state level are now declaring that Republicans will be destroyed after this election due to demography and a loudmouth reality TV star who can’t be taken seriously. Complacency and certainty are terrible traits to have when so much is at stake.